Old Settler's Music Festival
Elliott Brood, Jake Shimabukuro, Jim Lauderdale, David Francey, Sahara Smith, Tim O'Brien, Sonny Landreth, Eric Johnson, Sam Bush, and Richard Thompson
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., April 22, 2011
Old Settler's Music FestivalSalt Lick BBQ Pavilion, Driftwood, April 16
Elliott Brood is no Scott Avett. The Avett brother's last-minute paternity leave left the 24th annual Old Settler's Music Festival without a Friday night headliner, but spring fever had clearly taken hold of Elliott Brood early the next day, Saturday, the 14-hour heart of the Hill Country April marathon. "We were sent by the Canadian government to make you dance," announced the Toronto trio's singer and banjoist, Mark Sasso. "One day only. You have to listen to us; we're a superpower!" Starting out on acoustic and electric guitars respectively, Sasso and Casey Laforet cranked a modern alt-croak with percussionist Steve Pitkin that by the second song, "Second Son" ("about a happy hanging," quipped Sasso), rattled and strummed like a wire brush on an iron skillet. "Chuckwagon," from Elliott Brood's third and most recent disc, 2008's Mountain Meadows, became a teeter-totter of rhythm and riff, the song's titular cry acting as trail boss. "Oh, Alberta" blew Dylan-esque. The Avetts shared a Grammy spot with Dylan, but the Brood, whose Sasso and Laforet grew up together in Windsor, Ontario – just across the border from Detroit – covered "Hotel Yorba" just about the time Jack White rearranged it into a hit for the White Stipes. "Ours was not a hit," winked Sasso as he and Laforet (Toronto's next Rush axis, Lee & Lifeson?) took up ukuleles for the group's finale. Over at the second stage, Jake Shimabukuro was busy turning said four-stringed plucked lute into something larger than a subset of the guitar family. The Hawaiian uke virtuoso demonstrated how such a novel instrument could mimic a 13-string Japanese koto in "Sakura Sakura," here dedicated to his family and others in Japan, and executed with the laser delicacy of an acoustic Jimmy Page. Leonard Cohen by way of Jeff Buckley ("Hallelujah"), tears for uke emissary George Harrison ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (as seen in Wayne's World) moved from crowd-pleasing and YouTube viral to deeply in-dialogue with greater rock & roll. Jim Lauderdale wasn't the first six-stringer of the weekend calling attention to his handmade Hill Country trigger, a Collins acoustic guitar in this case named "Coco," but in his sparkling magenta Nashville country duds, the singer-songwriter and a backing quartet anchored by Heybale!'s Tom Lewis on skins rang the instrument's Texan woodgrain. Composed by Lauderdale and Grateful Dead mystic Robert Hunter ("Patchwork River"), written by Lauderdale and Nick Lowe ("Always on the Outside"), penned in tribute to Gram Parson via George Jones ("The King of Broken Hearts"), drilled with Buddy Miller ("Hole in My Head," calling Joe Ely): Lauderdale wrote the book – every day. From lovesick Canadian folkie (David Francey) to translucent local siren (Sahara Smith), the heart of OSMF 2011 built to two "newgrass" titans sandwiching the red, hot, and blues. Tim O'Brien's acoustic quartet – fiddle, stand-up bass, guitar, and the bandleader's mandolin – matched bluegrass gospel ("Sinner") with familial elegy ("Letter in the Mail") on his new CD, Chicken & Egg, before tuning to "the key of lickety-split" for Bill Monroe's "Wheel Hoss." Sonny Landreth welcomed local guitar soulmate Eric Johnson for a heated demonstration of the Stratocaster, the lanky Louisianan doing for slide guitar what Anthony Perkins did to Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's shower, first on a black Strat, then a red one, and finally along with Johnson's brown axe. The equally lanky native son's obvious comfort level in trading licks with his friend resulted in a fierce and fluid attack, his Clapton-lined honk stepping on the pedal of Landreth's eviscerating pinch, the bottle on the latter's fret finger grinding steel on steel in an unearthly squeal. "Lord have mercy – Eric Johnson," exclaimed Landreth, then quenching the early evening dust storm whipped up by few spring rains and fewer wildflowers with post-Katrina blues and a Mardi Gras zydeco stompathon. That left Sam Bush, wielding his mandolin like Bruce Springsteen circa Born To Run, to reintroduce his quintet's banjo into the suddenly black-lung proceedings, the doppelgänger of a Phish frontman also firing up his crack band of turn-on-a-dime virtuosos with his fiddle that went down to Georgia. Bush's cover of "Billy Bob Marley" ("One Love") no doubt put the Reggae Festival to shame. Toward midnight, bundled up in long sleeves, a vest, scarf, and trademark mercenary chapeau, Richard Thompson rode his breathtaking "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" into the cold, dark, dusty night (last year it was spring showers on April 16) as the Gourds raged like Woodstock across camp and dropping temperatures dwindled audiences to die-hards only. An Avett Brothers' make-up date in October might call for better global warming.